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Literature Film Quarterly (2000) - Fashion dreams: Hitchcock, women, and Lisa Fremont

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Fashion dreams: Hitchcock, women, and Lisa Fremont

Alfred Hitchcock has long suffered from a reputation as a misogynist and a Svengali. Of course, he has earned this reputation -- through the scenes of violence against women in his films of the sixties, his coarse comments about women in his interviews, and in his well-publicized obsessive relationships with his actresses late in life, most notably Tippi Hedren, during the filming of The Birds and Marnie -- relationships which are meticulously detailed in gossipy biographies like Donald Spoto's, Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius.

Nevertheless, such critics as Lesley Brill and Tania Modleski have wondered whether Hitchcock's tag as a misogynist, though undoubtably accurate vis a vis certain of his films, is inadequate in summarizing his work in general. Hitchcock's work as a whole is too strongly infused with a fascination with the feminine and too acutely conscious of the deficiencies of the male personality to be summarized simply as denigrating to women.

Many of the contemporary opinions about Hitchcock and women have been shaped by Spoto's biography. It is in many ways a carefully researched book and represents a terrific source of anecdotal evidence on Hitchcock's life. But most of those who knew and worked with Hitchcock are suspicious of what they see as an exaggeration of Hitchcock's dark side in the book. And, in fact, the evidence that Spoto amasses to support his dark interpretations is unimpressive. One has the sense, after having read the book, that were the direct quotations that are accumulated in the book read on their own, unaccosted by Spoto's dark readings, a much more benevolent view of Hitchcock would surface. Spoto, for example, quotes Ivor Montague as saying, in regards to Hitchcock, that "a good director must have something of the sadist to him. I do not necessarily mean to pathological degree, but that his looking at things and telling characters to do this, undergo that, is necessarily akin to dominating them, ordering them about." But, Spoto introduces this quote as "characteristically generous" and finishes by contradicting it altogether, suggesting that Montague's "delicate diction, refined sensibility and reluctance to betray the man he considered the master of cinema do not entirely cover his awareness that there might indeed have been something pathological" in Hitchcock's directorial technique (Spoto 164). Spoto tends to breeze by overt testimonies on Hitchcock's behalf in his hunt for sinister subtext that in the end he may be the only one who sees.

Which is not to say that Hitchcock did not have his sadistic tendencies (though, as Montague points out, directors are famous for those). Farley Granger noted that Hitchcock always "had to have one person in each film he could harass" and it must be admitted that it often seems to have been a woman (Ruth Roman in Strangers on a Train, for example, or Edith Evanston on the set of Rope [Spoto 346]). But, Spoto's portrait of Hitchcock as a monstrous Svengali has to be qualified in several ways.

First of all, if one is going to emphasize Hitchcock's controlling tendencies with his actresses one had better do so within the context of his attitude to actors in general, both men and women. Male actors, like John Gielgud and Gregory Peck, have complained about Hitchcock too. He irritated certain actors, as did the French film director Robert Bresson, in his quest for a more neutral performance than the actor wanted to give. "In answer to my questions about mood or expression," Peck complained gently, "he would simply say that I was to drain my face of all expression and he would photograph me" (Spoto 291). He was similarly condescending toward method actors. He found Montgomery Clift "too obscure" (Bogdanovich 31), and repeatedly in his intervie...

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(c) Literature Film Quarterly (2000)